Hail To The Thing: On The Duke Nukem Demo

All those years and they couldn't create two different character models? Oh, wait, I see.

Duke Nukem? He’s a goddamned wimp. Gets wrecked on just one can of beer, can’t push a cart up a small hill unless he takes everything out of it first, can’t travel across a desert without his precious car, and he plays with human excretion. He’s back, in a 1.5Gb, two-level demo released today but only to people who preordered Duke Nukem Forever or bought specific editions of Borderlands – and apparently he’s a massive wuss.

Wait. Waiiiiiiiiiiit. I just played Duke Nukem Forever. What is this I don’t even

I call this an anti-demo, because it’s not actually demonstrating the game in order to help you decide whether or not you’re buying it. Instead, it’s a demo you get if you have already paid for Duke Nukem Forever. Or for Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition. Either way, this isn’t a demo in the classical sense – it’s a prized goodie that you pay for, an event in and of itself.

Still: I just played Duke Nukem Forever. It’s a bewildering thing to say, even after a good six months of knowing the game was actually, finally, truly happening. Here’s what I made of it.

It’s two levels, both of which have I believe been previewed by assorted press previously. The first is the introductory one, and specifically the reintroduction of Duke himself. He’s a nasal-sounding, self-important hulk, hero-worshipped by himself and by a handful of beat-up soldiers hanging around the locker room the game starts in, and he takes extreme pleasure from base acts such as urination, insulting people, leching at women and, now infamously, picking up faeces and throwing it around. He’s an ape, essentially. He’s Duke Nukem, and you already know him well. Whether this entertains, disgusts or simply disinterests you may well depend entirely on whether you grew up with and are already fond of the Duke persona. It’s not, in the demo at least, at all an evolved one, and in fact the stepping up of its gleeful gratuitousness most evoked the Postal games to my mind, but with the genuinely sociopathic edges filed off.

The simple physics demo in the introductory level – turd-throwing and scrawling on a whiteboard with all the fluidity of an etch-a-sketch – seems to fade away fast, in favour of a shooter that’s probably most comparable to the better bits of Quake IV, but a whole lot more over the top and gung-ho. The first level segues into a scripted boss battle, in which you hammer bullets at a giant cyclops thing standing in football stadium, while an overhead helicopter drops ammo packs for you. This setpiece’s primary purpose is to demonstrate that Duke is the badass to end all badasses or whatever, the giant thing offering him essentially zero threat and him gleefully finishing it off with a very simple quicktime event that results in dropkicking its giant eyeball over a distant goalpost. After an unending orgy of self-celebration up until that point, it’s a relief to see Duke actually do something to demonstrate quite why he loves himself so much.

Cut to a carefully censored blowjob scene and more self-celebration. I didn’t laugh, but nor was I outraged – it simply seemed neither funny or titillating to me. I don’t have any objection to crudity, it just didn’t seem like very good crudity, and far too lost in navel-gazing adulation of the character rather than having real jokes of its own. If you’re gonna go for it, go for it, but lame innuendo and dated-looking character models is not the stuff that shocks are made of. Still, I did giggle at the awe-struck amazement of a waiting soldier as Duke/I scribbled illegible, feckless gibberish on the whiteboard earlier – the clearest hint given that the game was indeed laughing at itself as well as slapping itself on the back. I hope there’s more of that.

Finally, it’s the off to the game itself, with the bold, bold choice of a desert setting. Duke starts off in his own gaudy monster truck, in a canyon-coasting, ramp-jumping section which seems more than a little like the buggy sections in Borderlands. It doesn’t last long – the thing abruptly runs out of gas at a scripted point, leaving Duke on foot and in search of fuel.

It proves itself a decent enough combat game at this point – shooting pop-up pig-men with a rapidly wide array of weapons (pistol, shotgun, machinegun, railgun, rocketlauncher and the entertaining but not especially useful shrinkray), followed by a quickie skirmish against a gunship, rendered extremely simple thanks to an indestructible shed to hide inside.

It’s a little like Call of Duty, but sillier (though only just, depending on which CoD you’re talking about) and much more sci-fi (though only just, depending on which CoD you’re talking about). It’s fine! It’s scripted up the wazoo, but things explode spectacularly, the environments are large and pseudo-open in appearance, though of course your path is actually A-B, and it piles on plenty enough bad guys to feel both challenged and a hard-nut. One enemy is much the same as the next, however, very much in the CoD idiom again, and the demo level didn’t offer me anything in the way of air-punching, memorable moments. The railgun’s a fun time, limbs pop off with messy satisfaction and it doesn’t have the air of a cramped corridor shooter; obviously it couldn’t ever, possibly live to up noise it’s made over 12 years, but apart from the dreadful running animation the demo is pretty comparable to today’s console shooters, and not some miserable little retrograde mess. Half-Life 2 knocks it into a cocked hat, but then wasn’t that always going to be the case?

Next, it’s off to some underground tunnels, as Duke uses a spot of physics to push a mine cart filled with non-exploding barrels around a small track. Only when faced with a pretty gentle hill, he can’t do it – unless he takes all three barrels out first. Wimp! Once done, he can climb in himself, release the brake and do an Indy-style hurtle across a ravine. A little more of this and he finds his way to the fabled fuel can, which triggers a swarm of ugly spidery things. He shoots them, has another on-rails experience as his cart bursts overground and along an impossible, rollercoaster-like track patrolled by easily splatted pigmen, then he’s back to his car and the end of the demo.

It’s fine. It’s a first-person shooter in the manner we’re all terribly familiar with, with some confidently excessive setpieces, a spot of gentle bad language and lad’s mag lustiness peppered on top. I would question the logic of using a desert level for the demo (how many times have we been there?), but maybe the point is to normalise expectations rather than expect something mythical.

It’s fine. The demo is fine – it’s got a reasonable amount of variety, it only looks about three or four years old and it’s clearly very much enjoying existing. It’s fine. But nothing more than that. The full game I very obviously can’t speak for, though the trailer that ends the demo suggests a cavalcade of bigger, brasher, more impressive setpieces in environments that aren’t brown and bland, so I look forward to giving that stuff a try. Can’t say I’m expecting to especially be on tenterhooks for the next two weeks going on this, however. That said, my interest in it is purely as a new videogame to assess, not as a new, long-awaited Duke Nukem product – if you’re someone who’s been breathlessly anticipating it for ages, you honestly should not bother caring about what I have to say, because we’re looking at it from fundamentally different angles. Duke never having been a franchise that I had strong feelings about, I didn’t have any particular expectations going into the demo, nor do I have any coming out of it. The demo suggests it’s just an average-seeming, slightly dated first-person shooter game with blowjob gags. Good for it.

It’s fine. Still though: Duke gets double-vision and sways all over the place after just one can of beer. What. A. Wimp.

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